Music is the foundation for so many things in people’s lives. Certain songs or bands remind us of our best and worst days. And while bands from the ’90s are all the rage again, among those still killing it is Beck.
Bizarre lyrics and a cool sound have always been his allure. Only Beck can say something like “From the time of chimpanzees, I was a monkey,” then follow it up with an inspirational proclamation such as “Things are gonna change—I can feel it!” Despite the seeming disconnect, we fell for his first hit, “Loser.”
Today, Beck is a titan in the music industry. He has won Grammy Awards; his music has been featured in films and commercials; and he’s run the late-night gamut from Saturday Night Live to Jimmy Kimmel Live! He continues to play to sold-out crowds worldwide. But to get his music and understand why he’s so successful, you really need to know where he’s been.
Beck Hansen was born in Southern California in 1970 as Bek David Campbell. Dad was a Canadian arranger, composer and conductor, while Mom was part of Andy Warhol’s orbit in New York. In Los Angeles, his family struggled and lived in tough neighborhoods; at one point, Beck was sent to Kansas to live with his grandparents, whom he once said were concerned about his “weird” home life. His grandfather was a Presbyterian minister, and Beck was influenced by church music and hymns during that time. After his parents separated when he was 10, he moved back to LA to live with his mom and brother.
He was 16 when he got his first guitar, and as the story goes, he was drawn to the sounds of Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore, X and Grandmaster Flash.
Having felt like an outcast amongst the outcasts, he dropped out of school after junior high, saying that though he felt education was important, he felt unsafe at school. He worked odd jobs and took in musical education whenever there was a lesson to be learned.
In 1989, he moved to New York, where he learned the do’s and don’ts of life, including that people eventually screw you over, or vice versa, not always intentionally or maliciously. After two years on the East Coast, discouraged by the prospect of another homeless New York winter, he returned to LA in ’91. He has said that he left New York because he was tired of being cold and hungry and was tired of getting beat up. He felt he used up all his friends, and everyone in the scene got sick of him.
Back in LA, he immediately started playing wherever he could, including on buses, incorporating a little bit of everything into his sound. Sometimes, he’d be covering a well-known tune, but couldn’t tell if anyone was listening, so he started making up lyrics. It was a move that got him noticed.
With help from his friends, he put out the single “Loser” in ’93, and it blew up. Just a year later, he was a worldwide sensation. He was so inspired he put out album after album. He couldn’t find the same magic, though, and the prospect of being known as a one-hit wonder weighed heavily on him.
Determined to do something new, he went into the studio and came out with his signature album, Odelay, which featured the mega-hits “Devils Haircut,” “The New Pollution,” “Jack-Ass” and “Where It’s At.” Since then, he’s released eight more studio albums, with another coming this year. His moment of self-redemption for all those years of struggle came in 2014, when his folk-infused record, Morning Phase, was named Album of the Year at the Grammys. Overall, he’s had 17 Grammy nominations and won seven times.
He’s now considered an alt-rock god, and his performances are nothing less than spectacular, reminiscent of Earth, Wind & Fire in their glory days. See for yourself this week at FivePoint Amphitheatre, where he’ll share the stage with Cage the Elephant, Spoon and Starcrawler.
Not long ago, a friend told me, “Before he hit it big, my friends and I would see Beck play at Highland Grounds coffee shop in Hollywood, and we’d laugh at this goofball. Looks like he got the last laugh.” Yes, that quirky kid definitely did okay for himself.
Beck performs at FivePoint Amphitheatre, 14800 Chinon, Irvine, (949) 988-6800; www.livenation.com/venues/33640/fivepoint-amphitheatre. Wed., 6 p.m. $45-$500. All ages.